Monday, March 25, 2013

MYSTERIOUS MONDAY: Joyce Yarrow interview at Body in the Library blog

Joyce Yarrow, author of Code of Thieves, is interviewed today at the blog There's a Body in the Library. Stop on by and chat with Joyce. Here's a sample of the exchange:

MARY SUTTON: You said on your website that “settings are characters.” What do you mean by that?
JOYCE YARROW: Well, it is often said that a place ‘has character’ – and since our environment has such power to shape us, I would take it one step further. Cities and towns, suburbs and wilderness all share the qualities of a living organism, both symbolically and in reality. This is why streets are called arteries, mountains taunt us with their grandeur, and Billy Joel sings about being in a ‘New York’ state of mind.’

As I see it, my job as a writer is to bring to life the physical universe in which a story takes place, so that the border between character and setting blurs and the two merge in the reader’s mind to create an alternate reality. Raymond Chandler was a master at this, to the point where a mini-industry has sprung up in Los Angeles, taking mystery fans on tours of the settings portrayed in his books. Here’s a classic example: “The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street tunnel, but I didn't move. Not being bullet proof is an idea I had had to get used to.” From The Big Sleep.

When I traveled to Russia in search of settings for Code of Thieves, each place I visited—Vladimir Central Prison, the Moscow Metro, the Matryoshka Factory, et al—became a character in its own right, revealing its unique personality and inviting traumatic events to transpire there.


Istoria Books is rereleasing Joyce's excellent mystery novel Code of Thieves this April. The new edition features an essay by and interview with the author. 


 Code of Thieves by Joyce Yarrow

Full-time private investigator/part-time poet Jo Epstein travels to New York and eventually to Russia to help clear her emigre stepfather—who is framing him for murder and who is sending him threatening messages in Russian nesting dolls (matryoshkas)? Her investigation takes her on a journey into her stepfather’s past and into the honor-bound code of the “vory,” a Russian criminal syndicate.
  • "Intricately layered like the Russian nested doll of the title..." Library Journal
  • "You'll want to discover the secrets buried in The Last Matryoshka..." Lesa Holstine, Lesa's Book Critiques
  • "Joyce Yarrow....may very well prove herself to be the Mickey Spillane of the 21st century...." Seattle Post Intelligencer
Buy Code of Thieves by Joyce Yarrow for Kindle here.
It is also available at other major etailers.


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Istoria Books's "Mysterious Monday" program features posts about mystery writing, reading, bookselling and more by writers from beyond the Istoria stable. Stop back on Mondays for insightful posts on the mystery genre. Check out Istoria Books's mystery offerings here.

Mysterious Monday posts from the past: 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Barnes & Noble forgets it has an online business

by Libby Sternberg

First came the digital revolution with Amazon leading the charge. No longer did readers have to browse bricks and mortar bookstores looking for a specific read. Amazon brought it to their fingertips.

Then Amazon pushed the revolution farther still when they realized their customer base included writers and not just readers. The bookselling behemoth reached out to writers, making it easy for authors to self-publish and reach readers on their own without a publisher middleman, and offering them royalty deals no publisher would ever dream of handing over to a lowly scribe.

But what about print? Authors love the feel and smell of a print book. Amazon had that covered, too. Through their CreateSpace services, authors can easily upload their manuscripts, even design a cover (or contract with Amazon's services for one) and, voila, within an amazingly short period of time--nothing at all close to the year-long wait most authors face from signing a publishing contract through til actual publication--a print book is in the writer's hand.

These innovations have also made it much easier for small publishers, such as Istoria, to get up and running, securing a boutique position in the publishing marketplace.

Amazon's innovations have been applauded by everyone in the industry.

Uh, no, scratch that. Actually, several of the Big Six (make that Big Five now) publishers allegedly colluded with Apple to keep ebook prices higher than Amazon wanted. In the ensuing legal battle, Amazon was treated like the Big Bad Evil Corporation Out to Destroy All that Is Good and Holy about Books (BBECODAIGHB, for short).

Speaking of BBECODAIGHB's, though, one of them used to be Borders.. Remember Borders--the Big Box bookstore everyone loathed for quite some time, seeing in it portents of the End of Bookselling as we know it? Funny how that attitude changed when Borders went belly up. Then, everyone was mourning the loss of this bookselling giant.

Now the only bookselling giant on the block is Barnes & Noble. B&N got into the digital field with the Nook (see this post about a marketing opportunity the Nook missed), but they've not embraced the other parts of the digital revolution as nimbly as Amazon.

And the latest news from the B&N front is this: they're limiting Simon & Schuster titles in their store because the publisher won't dance to their tune on ebook discounting and "costs associated with in-store promotions," according to a Wall Street Journal article today.  In-store promotions, by the way, include publishers paying for where books are displayed. Don't assume when you go in a bookstore that the managers and staff choose which books go on the tables that catch your eye. Publishers pay for that in-store real estate.

Anyway, according to the article, B&N "worries that consumers use its stores as 'showrooms' to find titles that they then order online at a discounted price."

Sure would be helpful if B&N also had an online business, too, wouldn't it? Then customers who can't find books in their stores could order a book through the B&N online service. They could have a short and snappy URL, too. Oh, something like, maybe, Just sayin'....

The cheese stands alone
Sarcasm aside, if Barnes & Noble is worried about losing customers to online retailers who can offer discounts, why doesn't B&N beat those etailers to the punch? When you walk in the door to a Barnes & Noble store, you should be walking in the door to their entire inventory, whether it's in the physical store or online.

Okay, for free, B&N, here are some ideas:

In every store, vigorously promote this slogan: Can't find it on our store shelves? Buy it on our eshelves! 

And then place computer screens around the store -- how about at the end of every other bookshelf?  And next to those screens (which are only linked to the website, of course) place coupons with discount codes for various genres. Mix it up, changing the discounts from week to week. It will draw folks in to see what kind of deal they can get the next time they come in. Even if some folks think they can get a better deal elsewhere, there is nothing like taking care of a purchase when you're thinking of it.

Barnes & Noble now stands virtually alone as the one bricks-and-mortar Big Box bookstore in the U.S. That's a tremendous advantage. They should stop sniping at publishers and competitors and start thinking about how they can use their advantage to attract customers to their physical and online stores.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist and editor-in-chief of Istoria Books.

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Monday, March 11, 2013

MYSTERIOUS MONDAY: Common mistakes mystery novelists make about the law

 by Leslie Budewitz

A legal thread runs through the fictional world. Novels, short stories, screenplays, and TV scripts often involve legal issues that may be central to the plot or provide backstory. But the law can be confusing. It’s constantly changing and varies from state to state. Plus most of us, thank goodness, live happy lives without facing serious legal issues.

Mysteries and crime novels typically involve an investigation, and often a prosecution. Law enforcement officers and P.I.s need to know what’s legal and what isn’t. Writers with amateur sleuths need to know a few things about the law, too–the chef/gardener/bookstore owner may get involved because she thinks law enforcement won’t investigate or is focusing on the wrong suspect. Past crimes may surface with present ramifications, some legal, some illegal. Plots and subplots in mainstream and literary novels may involve the law, too.

But unintentional mistakes take your readers right out of the story. Here are a few common mistakes I see in books, movies, and TV shows.

Leslie Budewitz
– Using the wrong terms, particularly in identifying prosecutors and courts.
On Law & Order–and I love the show–the prosecutor is the D.A. Elsewhere, she might be the County Attorney, County Prosecutor, State’s Attorney, even the People’s Attorney. A long handle like the Commonwealth’s Attorney might be shortened to “the prosecutor.” Does she try cases in District Court, Circuit Court, Superior Court, or another variation? It’s easy to check, whether you live where your story is set or not. If you aren’t sure of the terminology, call the court or the prosecutor’s office, or check their website. Read news accounts of recent prosecutions in the newspaper online. No doubt you’ll pick up some good local flavor, too.

– Assuming law enforcement officers need a warrant to make an arrest.
Police don’t need a warrant to make an arrest in a public place, or in “exigent circumstances,” such as when an officer witnesses a crime or is pursuing a person suspected of committing a crime. But they still need probable cause, based on the 4th Amendment. That means reasonable belief, based on facts, that evidence of a particular crime will be found in a particular place, or that a particular person is responsible for a particularized crime. “Mere suspicion” is not enough.

– Confusing direct and circumstantial evidence.
Evidence is anything – witness testimony, physical evidence like a gun or DNA test results, or documents – offered at trial to prove a fact necessary to the elements of the case.

Direct evidence is testimony or physical evidence of a fact. Circumstantial evidence is evidence of one fact that leads to an inference or presumption. In both civil and criminal law, circumstantial evidence may be enough to make the case. If the other side objects to circumstantial evidence, the judge must rule on whether to allow (“admit”) it or not. Is it relevant–that is, does it make facts that matter to the case more or less probable?

– Giving a Miranda warning as soon as a suspect is arrested.
A warning is required only before custodial interrogation. That is, only suspects in custody need to be warned, and even then, only before questioning. Voluntary statements by persons not in custody or not made in response to questioning are admissible. A suspect who’s been warned can waive his rights and agree to questioning. Warning a suspect on arrest only guarantees that he’ll shut up–many defendants have been arrested before and they know the drill. Plus they watch the same TV shows as the rest of us.

– Introducing new evidence on appeal.
Appeals are decided strictly on the record below–meaning the evidence and legal rulings at trial, or if the appeal is from a pretrial ruling, the ruling, briefing, and arguments. An appellate court might order the lower court–meaning the trial court–to reopen the case to consider evidence or arguments it previously excluded. But it won’t allow the parties to present any evidence or argue legal issues not presented below: no new testimony, no new witnesses, no new physical evidence.

In a criminal case, new evidence may surface weeks, months, even years after conviction. There are other procedures to get that evidence in front of the court, to decide whether the case needs to be reopened, such as petitions for habeas corpus.

Of course, police officers, lawyers, and judges do make mistakes–in real life and in fiction. Now that you know a few common stumbling blocks, you can decide when to let your characters make a mistake, to increase the stakes and tensions, and make your story even more gripping.


Leslie Budewitz is the author of Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books), winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. Read an excerpt and more articles on   She blogs for writers at   
Death al Dente, first in her cozy series, The Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in northwest Montana, will debut from Berkley Prime Crime in August 2013. 

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Istoria Books's "Mysterious Monday" program features posts about mystery writing, reading, bookselling and more by writers from beyond the Istoria stable. Stop back on Mondays for insightful posts on the mystery genre. Check out Istoria Books's mystery offerings here.

Mysterious Monday posts from the past: 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Nook misses its niche

by Libby Sternberg

The news in the publishing world is that Barnes & Noble's tablet/e-reader, the Nook, didn't fare so well sales-wise this past year.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal last Friday, "Nook revenue plunged 26 % to $316 million for the fiscal third quarter ended Jan. 26 and the segment posted a larger loss." 

While Nook languishes, profits have improved at its retail stores business. In other words, folks might not be buying Nooks, but they are buying books.

A day before the negative Nook news appeared, another story circulated: B&N's former owner and now chairman and largest shareholder, Leonard Riggio, wants to buy the company's retail assets. This means the Nook side of the business would likely be separated from the general retail side.
This represents something of an about-face for Mr. Riggio, who introduced the new B&N CEO William Lynch three years ago by saying the chain needed to be "more than a retail bookseller." Mr. Lynch had come from a tech background, and, according to news reports, spent "almost all of his time" on the digital side of B&N's business.

Now it appears that time was ill-spent. Nook never managed to capture the e-reading public's fancy in the same way the Kindle has, or even the way the iPad and its newest iteration, the iPad mini, has.

Why not? The Nook is a solid e-reading device. Although I'm in the Kindle camp, a close relative has a Nook tablet, a gift she received about a year ago. She checks her email on it and surfs the web when traveling. And, oh, yeah, she can read books on it, too.

She's not a techie--neither am I--so I have no first-person analysis of the relative advantages and disadvantages of Nook vs. Kindle vs. iPad (another close relative owns one of the latter--and asked for a Kindle as a gift within a few months after discovering that reading ebooks on an iPad in bright sunlight is a bear).

Therein, however, lies an advantage for the Nook that has never been exploited, certainly not in any promotions I've seen. If anything, after seeing a Nook ad, it's hard to remember if it was for Nook or Kindle.

The advantage for my relative with the Nook was this--she's no techie, as noted above, so when she went to set up the device, she immediately hit the brick wall of tech blah-blah-blah, the usernames, the passwords, the configure-this and download-that. She has little patience for all that. So, she took herself and her Nook to the nearest Barnes & Noble store where a real-live person cheerfully helped her set it up. A real live person--not a name at the end of an email or a voice on the other end of a phone! She loved this aspect of owning a Nook. Amazon's customer service might be good, but nothing beats talking to someone face-to-face.

So, my question is: how did Nook miss this promotional niche? They certainly used up a bunch of precious store real estate on Nook displays. Why didn't they market the fact that while Amazon's Kindle does everything a Nook does, Nook has real people to talk to when you have questions, problems or even suggestions. People who happen to be in their...stores. Smiling at you. Waiting to talk. And, you might buy some print books while you're there.

That seems to me a tremendous marketing advantage Barnes & Noble never even mentioned, let alone exploited.

Mr. Lynch might have missed the proverbial forest for the trees. He didn't see the vast opportunity Nook had to attract non-techies (the majority of folks who probably use these devices) to his product.

But who am I to suggest what captains of industry should do? Just a lowly editor who likes to occasionally mouth off on what's wrong with this business or that one.

Libby Sternberg is editor-in-chief of Istoria Books. She is also an author.

Monday, March 4, 2013

MYSTERIOUS MONDAY: To review or not, by Marlyn Beebe

by Marlyn Beebe
When Istoria Books Editor Libby Sternberg asked me if I could discuss what I look for when I review a mystery, I initially thought there was no way for me to do that, because my decision depends on how I feel about a book.

So, let me try to take you through my process and see what happens.
When I receive a book (from a publisher/author/PR firm), the first thing I do is decide whether I want to read it.  If it’s a mystery, chances are good that I will. 

Of course it’s important that the book be well-written: if the book is filled with grammatical errors, I’m probably not going to get past the first chapter. 

Another thing that turns me off is a large number of characters, especially if they are similar.  Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express each have a dozen or more passengers who figure in the story, but their names and occupations vary enough that there’s minimal confusion.  If a story requires a large number of characters that could be mixed up, a cast list at the beginning or end of the book helps a lot.  I have not reviewed (and sometimes not even finished) books in which I couldn’t keep track of who was whom.

Too much technical detail is another problem.  I’m a librarian, and if I don’t know something, I know how to find out about it.  But I’m not going to enjoy a book if I have to keep looking stuff up.  Medical and legal mysteries that focus on a complex procedure rather than how they affect characters, relationships or plot don’t hold my attention.

Some reviewers love writing scathing reviews, and I must admit that constructing these can be sort of fun and cathartic.  My thinking is that I’d rather not alienate those who provide me with the material I work with.  People send me books because they believe I’m skilled at what I do, and that my opinions might be helpful, and I certainly don’t want them to stop because they’re afraid I’ll rip them to shreds.

At the same time, I’m not a sycophant.  I do try to make my reviews positive, but if there’s a little thing that bothers me, I will mention it, along with the fact that it is just my opinion.

Because, in the end, a review is nothing more than one individual’s reaction.

My thanks to Libby and Istoria Books blog for having me as their guest.

Marlyn Beebe grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where she graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in Library and Information Studies.   Not being a fan of frozen water falling from the sky, she now lives in Southern California, with her husband, Tod.  She works part-time at multiple libraries, and spends the rest of her time reading, reviewing, blogging, and watching hockey games.  Marlyn reviews books for VOYA magazine ( as well as Crime Fiction Collective ( and her own blog Stuff and Nonsense (


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Istoria Books's "Mysterious Monday" program features posts about mystery writing, reading, bookselling and more by writers from beyond the Istoria stable. Stop back on Mondays for insightful posts on the mystery genre. Check out Istoria Books's mystery offerings here.

Mysterious Monday posts from the past:

Coming up: Author Joyce Yarrow talks about favorite characters and favorite character types in mystery, and lawyer and novelist Leslie Budewitz talks about getting courtroom scenes right.